Hello, everyone! I'm thrilled that Kerrie invited me to do a guest post in honor of my new novel, The Indigo Notebook. (It's marketed toward a young adult audience, but like all my books, "old" adults have been enjoying it, too.)
About the book: In this first book in an exciting new series, world traveler Zeeta encounters mystery, adventure, and love in the Ecuadorian Andes as she helps an American boy search for his birth parents. And a blurb from Kirkus Reviews: "The characters fairly brim with life in this thoughtful, poignant novel filled with cultural details."
And now, here's the heart of what I want to write about today… what we writers can learn from shamans:
In each of my novels—What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, and now The Indigo Notebook—there is a shaman in the cast of characters. Shamanism has fascinated me for many years, beginning with my first anthropology classes in college.
A few years later, I was honored to participate in rituals with several Latin American healers, and I became good friends with one in particular—Dona Epifania, a Mazatec shamaness. We first met just over a decade ago, while I was living in Oaxaca, Mexico and writing many stories (but had yet to get any published). The more I spent time with Dona Epifania, the more parallels I saw between shamanism and story-telling… and the more I realized what a useful framework this was for my own creative process.
Mazatec shamans (and most shamans) heal, in part, by using words to create a narrative for their patients' problems (which usually have spiritual, physical, and emotional components). By drawing on wisdom obtained in another realm to tell the story of what caused the patient to fall ill, the shaman empowers the patient to heal herself. The famous Mazatec shamaness Maria Sabina often repeated in her trances, "I am a woman wise in words…", and indeed, her poetic chants were vital elements in her healing rituals.
Like shamans, we writers wield power with words. I know that as a reader, certain novels have helped me get through a rough time in my life. In turn, readers have written to tell me that my books have helped them through their own difficulties. Although I may be "wise in words" to the extent that I can use them to craft a story, any healing wisdom found in my books doesn't come from me. I'm definitely no well of wisdom— most of us writers aren't. We're measly, flawed humans just like everyone else.
Shamans believe that their power does not originate within themselves, but comes from a deeper, bigger source (in the case of Mazatec shamans, from God). Writers have a wide range of ideas about where exactly their creativity originates, and I respect that. It makes sense to find whatever works for you and go with it.
Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame explores this subject beautifully and humorously in a videotaped talk. Gilbert argues that it can be useful to your writing process to conceptualize your creativity as coming from an external source.
This perspective takes the pressure off you as a measly, flawed human. It keeps you humble and grateful. It makes negative feelings like jealousy or insecurity irrelevant, because you are part of a community of storytellers, all drawing from the same source.
In Oaxaca, one day I stumbled across an article in the journal Parabola about ancient Celtic storytellers called filidh, who were essentially both shamans and story-tellers. They would enter the Otherworld through trance to receive their stories and divinations (sometimes by being wrapped in the pelt of a bull and placed behind a waterfall, and sometimes by lying in bed in the dark).
They often began stories with a nonsensical line like "Once there was, and once there was not...", which shows that the story does not come from a place of rationality, but one of mystery. Have you noticed that the times you get completely in the flow of writing stories are the times when you've succeeded in shutting off your rational mind and entering an almost trance-like state?
A decade ago in Oaxaca, this shamanistic framework for story-telling gave me the courage and motivation to make my writing a priority despite the demands of everyday life, and despite my heaps of insecurities about whether my work was any good. And now, three published novels later, it's still the framework I return to when I encounter new struggles.
My current challenge is how to balance the deep, creative aspects of a professional writing life with what I consider the more superficial, but necessary, aspects, like book promotion and contractual obligations.
I try to always remember the lessons I've learned from shamans-- that stories have the power to heal, that they come from a deep, mysterious source, that I need to let go of my rational mind to access them, and finally, that I must always stay humble and grateful.
One of my favorite quotes from Maria Sabina's chants is "I am a woman who looks into the insides of things…" Ultimately, that's what writers do, too. We look into the insides of things. And we transform our visions into words.
Here are some writing prompts to help you do that (borrowed from ancient Celtic filidh.)
Step 1: Wrap yourself in the hide of a bull and find a giant waterfall. Just kidding! Seriously, though, try to shut off your rational mind and slip down into a deeper place for a little while.
Step 2: Without thinking too hard or censoring yourself, write a stream-of-consciousness story beginning with one of these prompts. (Pick whichever one speaks to you).
"Once it was where it was not beyond seven times seven countries and the Sea of Operencia behind an old stove in a crack in the wall in the skirt of an old hag and there in the seven times seventh fold...a white flea; and in the middle of it the beautiful city of a king" ; and in that city…
"Once there was, and once there was not..."
"Once long ago, and a long time it was. If I were there then, I should not be there now. If I were there now and at that time, I should have a new story or an old story, or I should have no story at all..."
Step 3: After you've got a rough draft, *give thanks* (shamans always do.) Then you can go back and revise, letting your rational mind come into the picture…
Thanks for reading! Have courage on your writing journey! I'd love to see you at one of my upcoming events in the area:
October 24, 2009 1:00-4:00 p.m. Through the Writing Glass, Bas Blue Theatre, 401 Pine St. Fort Collins, CO. Join authors Todd Mitchell, Victoria Hanley, Teresa Funke, and me, to celebrate our new books in a carnivalesque atmosphere!
November 8, 2009, Sunday, 7:00 Red Glass selling, signing, chatting for a half hour before the big T.C. Boyle event at the Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, CO, as part of Fort Collins Reads.
November 13, 2009, Friday Signing and Chatting about The Indigo Notebook, 7:00 to 8:00, Anthology Bookstore, Loveland, CO.
November 14, Saturday, 7:00 The Indigo Notebook Reading and Signing with Victoria Hanley for her new novel, Violet Wings, Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax. Everyone welcome!
Please see the events section of my website for details and more events. http://www.lauraresau.com
Maria Sabina: Her Life and Chants, by Alvaro Estrada, Ross-Erikson Inc., Santa Barbara, 1981.
"Words of Skill" by Mara Freeman 1995. http://www.chalicecentre.net/wordofskill.htm (also published in Parabola http://www.parabola.org/ )
Elizabeth Gilbert's talk http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html